Thomas Friedman offers his take on the WMD debate:

The failure of the Bush team to produce any weapons of mass destruction (W.M.D.’s) in Iraq is becoming a big, big story. But is it the real story we should be concerned with? No. It was the wrong issue before the war, and it’s the wrong issue now.

Why? Because there were actually four reasons for this war: the real reason, the right reason, the moral reason and the stated reason.

The “real reason” for this war, which was never stated, was that after 9/11 America needed to hit someone in the Arab-Muslim world. Afghanistan wasn’t enough because a terrorism bubble had built up over there — a bubble that posed a real threat to the open societies of the West and needed to be punctured. This terrorism bubble said that plowing airplanes into the World Trade Center was O.K., having Muslim preachers say it was O.K. was O.K., having state-run newspapers call people who did such things “martyrs” was O.K. and allowing Muslim charities to raise money for such “martyrs” was O.K. Not only was all this seen as O.K., there was a feeling among radical Muslims that suicide bombing would level the balance of power between the Arab world and the West, because we had gone soft and their activists were ready to die.

* * *
The “right reason” for this war was the need to partner with Iraqis, post-Saddam, to build a progressive Arab regime. Because the real weapons of mass destruction that threaten us were never Saddam’s missiles. The real weapons that threaten us are the growing number of angry, humiliated young Arabs and Muslims, who are produced by failed or failing Arab states — young people who hate America more than they love life. Helping to build a decent Iraq as a model for others — and solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — are the necessary steps for defusing the ideas of mass destruction, which are what really threaten us.

The “moral reason” for the war was that Saddam’s regime was an engine of mass destruction and genocide that had killed thousands of his own people, and neighbors, and needed to be stopped.

I agree with this analysis wholeheartedly. As noted Tuesday, I find it more than a little troubling that the Administration based its case for war on a pretext–the “stated reason” of Iraqi WMD–rather than on the “real reason.” While lip service was paid to terrorism and liberation, they should have been at the heart of the argument if that was the rationale for war.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Iraq War, Terrorism, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Kelli says:

    I KNEW that you would have something on Friedman today, because when I read an article and think “if I had a blog this would go on it” it magically appears here. I guess that’s a compliment.

    And while I too was glad to see this argument in print, where millions would read it, my second thought (there always is one) was that it is ridiculous to suggest that Bush and co. COULD have just levelled with the world about motives.

    I can picture it now: “We’ve concluded that the only way to derail Islamofascism is to shake up the entire MidEast; moreover, the only way to shake up the region is to scare the crap out of its leaders by pummelling one of its worst badasses. We’ve selected Iraq for the honor. Rummy, take it away!”

    I could think of clever euphemisms and diplospeak for some of this, but if the message were to be clear it would have been far too provocative for anyone (except, apparently, Friedman and a few of us blog-hawks) to take. Honesty is NOT always the best policy. We said and did what we had to do, and now the truth can be revealed by “clever” journalists and columnists. I don’t mind. I just don’t see how it could have been otherwise.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Glad to be of service;)

    Your point about honesty is a valid one. Clearly, in democracies, politicians have to sell the public on war and it can be hard to persuade the public about hard realities. I don’t mind that the Administration made the WMD argument because, despite my commentary about the failure to find them being embarrasing, I do think they thought they would find them.

    I would have made the war on terrorism the central focus of the argument and also talked about the awful condition of the people in Iraq and WMD, rather than reversing the emphasis.

  3. Jen says:

    Ah, Kelli beat me to the punch. What she said…


  4. Ryan says:

    These concerns about the motivations for the war are shared by the majority of the people who protested against it.
    It seems strange to support a war when the case for the war is a flimsly pretext, as was the case here. If you admit that the real reason for war was ‘to hit someone’, how could you not oppose it?
    I believe that the moral reason falls apart under the facts that we supported Iraq during its worst genocides and wars, the fact that the country was probably at its weakest historically, the fact that our sanctions had caused so much misery and support for Saddam, and the number of other terrible dictatorships that we support or ignore. (Uzbekistan is one example of a regime we are currently ignoring).

  5. James Joyner says:


    I don’t think we have to be bound by our past. Just because different leaders in a different era acted badly doesn’t mean we have to continue along that path in order to demonstrate consistency. During the days of the Cold War, we often made the mistake of believing the enemy of my enemy is my friend. We supported Saddam against Iran because we thought Khomeini’s Iran a greater threat and, even if we had wanted to stop the Iraqi genocide, we weren’t very well going to risk war with the Soviets to do so. Now, absent the Soviet counterweight and, hopefully, somewhat wiser, we can act differently.

    Friedman isn’t saying that we hit Iraq simply to hit someone but rather that it was important that we strike against a major rogue regime in the region that supported terrorism. Iraq, Saudi, and Syria all qualified and we judged Saddam most invasion-worthy. I think we fought the war for all four reasons Friedman mentioned and then some, including WMD; I just think WMD was #4 or lower on the list.

  6. Ryan says:

    I know there’s a great potential to get bogged down in this, but:

    there’s far less evidence of Iraq supporting terror than of it having WMD. It supported Palestinian terror to an extent, but that really is a seperate issue. In contrast there’s much more evidence of Saudi especilally sponsoring terror. So I don’t think terror links were a big reason. (Maybe percieved terror links, and the need to make the US public feel safe…).

    Also, I would really love to think that we had changed our ways regarding supporting dictators – cooling policies towards Saudi seems to point in that direction – but recently Bush has supported Northern Alliance in Afghanistan (was that their name? oh it was so long ago) and Uzbekistan etc. now – so I really don’t believe those days are gone.

    And still: the moral case for war is based on things Iraq did when we supported them. Of course we should now change our ways, but punishing them retrospectively is not moral!

  7. Dean Esmay says:

    Let’s get rid of this stupid myth once and for all, please: we did not “support” Saddam in committing atrocities. Ever.

    Nor did we ever arm Saddam.

    We gave him some support in his war against Iran, for strategic reasons. We did it with some loathing and disgust, with the wish that both sides would lose that war.

    Let’s be very clear then: morally, there was no justification for opposting taking out Saddam, and those of you who did oppose it should be ashamed of yourselves.

    But Kelli has it absolutely right: of the reasons for going after Saddam, it would have been insane to state them openly. It would have hampered our war efforts and drawn us even more opposition internationally.

    Besides, the WMD argument was real. It always was. We had evidence that he had them, and we knew he was giving support to Middle Eastern terrorist groups. He would not need a lot of WMDs to pose a threat–just the ability to make them and supply them in sufficient quantities to make terrorists a threat.

  8. Ryan says:

    We used the Iran-Iraq war as part of the rhetoric for starting this war! But we supported it as you say. We supported Saddam finacially through the whole period when he was gassing the Kurds. I’m not saying we supported the gassing: no-one is. But fourteen years later, it’s no excuse for war.

    Dean, you’re not attempting to convince me, or arguing, you’re just saying I’m wrong, without providing any evidence or dealing with the points I have raised. It’s clear that the administration had several reasons for invading Iraq, of which it told us a few. Why not tell the truth if there’s no reason to oppose the war?

    Oh and hey, did you see this? Wolfowitz goes mad: tells truth.